Hello fellow mystery lovers and welcome back! Today, I’ve got quite a doozy for you all.
When starting my internship, I knew there was a chance that I would stumble upon strange artifacts. It’s a museum after all, where objects get lost, get found, disappear entirely, and everything in between. If you’ve ever seen Mysteries at the Museum, you may have an idea of what I expected my job to entail.
Unfortunately, while I’ve never uncovered some strange human body part or the pieces to some ancient death machine, I did find a giant 35” x 41” framed needlepoint portrait titled Murder in the Cathedral.
Yeah. Let that sink in for a moment.
As you can expect, I was ecstatic. When I think of needlepoint, I imagine my grandmother and her large collection of flamingo designs stitched into pillows and displayed in frames, not church crime scenes. After showing the card with the title to my boss and laughing about it, I got around to getting the piece down. It wasn’t nearly as bloody and epic as I had imagined, but it was still a beautiful example of what can be done with needlepoint. It was obviously some sort of biblical thing, or some reference to a religious work beyond my sphere of knowledge. With a little research though, I was able to find out what the piece was about.
The title Murder in the Cathedral comes from a play written by T. S. Eliot in the early 1930s. It tells the story of a real life assassination plot that occurred in 1170. The assassinated man, Archbishop Thomas Becket, met his grisly end in Canterbury Cathedral at the hands of four knights acting under supposed orders from the king. The play, which was written in an atmosphere of rising Fascism in Europe, centers on the theme of resisting authority. It went on to become an opera, a film, and even the basis of a skit in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
While I haven’t seen Monty Python, I know a little about Thomas Becket and his struggles with King Henry II over the issues of church authority versus the state from my many history classes. During the time, King Henry systematically removed many of the duties and powers of the church in order to strengthen his own position within England. Becket, the only archbishop to stand firm against this, became a problem, resisting the many orders given to him to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon (sixteen constitutions that would limit clerical independence and limit the church’s contact with Rome). In a pique of anger, it is said that King Henry asked “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" or “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" Interpreting that as a royal command, the four knights set off to paint the cathedral red.
The deed done, King Henry was then able to limit the power of the church within England, Thomas Becket became a martyr and was later canonized by Pope Alexander III three years after his death, and the Canterbury Cathedral became a shrine honoring the sainted Archbishop Becket. The rest, as they say, is history.
What I find most interesting about this piece of art is the attention to detail. With context, it’s easy to see what is happening and the history behind the image. I can hardly imagine how long it must have taken to make a needlepoint of this magnitude, but the excellent craftsmanship definitely earns this piece its place as our mystery item of the week!